Is it alright to pay people to blog about a product?

Abbott recently put out an app for the iPhone regarding its infant formula Similac. The app “can easily track baby’s eating, sleeping … diaper changes … [and] predict the next feeding time”.

Now the controversy of formula substituting for breast milk is an old one. My dad, who was with UNICEF, was one of the pioneers fighting against Nestle and its baby formula. In the late ’70’s, I used to help him out with his presentations and one of the pictures used is that shown below of a mother breastfeeding twins — the one on the right was a boy and was given formula because “boys” were (are) favored; the one on the left was girl who was breastfed. Sadly, the formula-feed boy died shortly after the picture was taken.

So, that old issue is not the subject of this post (please go to Marketing Mama for a mother’s perspective). The issue is whether it is ok for pharmaceuticals to use paid bloggers to promote their products.

The pharmaceutical industry has long been criticized for paying doctors. For example, the ProPublica “Dollars for Docs” database continues the on-going debate of whether it is ethically okay for doctors to receive payment from pharmaceuticals. Many have even questioned whether doctors should see pharmaceutical sales representatives at all (for a discussion of this issue, please see Dr Howard Brody’s article “The Company We Keep: Why Physicians Should Refuse to See Pharmaceutical Representatives”)

With that backdrop, is the use of paid bloggers to promote the app a good thing?. For just as the public sees the “impartiality” of doctors as having been sullied by pharmaceutical money (because doctors should be primarily concerned about their patients’ health and not the product that they use), does the pharmaceutical industry “dirty” social media by paying bloggers to blog about their product?

Paying someone to do a TV or radio ad is generally accepted. However, paying someone to blog good things about your product? It’s like paying someone to say your “nice” at a cocktail party and then hoping that Michael, Sally, Ted or whoever then passes on the word that you are “nice” to someone else. A paid blogger seems to show that your product is not good enough (or that you’re not “nice” enough), so you had to pay someone to say it.

Now, a blogger who has not been paid, remunerated, or scripted — that’s golden. The person receiving the message from the blogger then thinks “wow, that product really works” — and it does for that blogger who has then decided to tell someone else. And, isn’t that the power of social media? But, does paying someone subvert that?

The difficulty faced is not about paid spokespeople per se, but that health issues and, more particularly, the perception (real or not) that your health concerns may appear to be playing second fiddle to a pharmaceutical’s profits.

So, express your opinion:

Boxcutters Gem #1221 – By all means “use” unpaid bloggers to “promote” your product. They’re your products best friends! For more, see my earlier post “Why paid KOLs?

Comments
9 Responses to “Is it alright to pay people to blog about a product?”
  1. Provocative post. I think I will have to let this stew a bit but my initial reaction is this is a fair and open market system, and although the internet and social media are still maturing, there of course are going to be people paid to write/tweet/Facebook/Blog praise about one thing or another. It is the same notion as social leaders paid to start a buzz. They are typically hired as PR agents. But in regards to the online world – it comes down to conscience. If the doctor who is offered the “job” genuinely doesn’t like the product, then they shouldn’t write positive things about it. If they like some things and not others, what they don’t say will hopefully be clear to their readers. My $0.02

  2. IMHO…
    It’s okay to be paid as long as:

    A – You disclose the fact.
    B – You present truthful information.
    C – You have some credibility.

    A popular blogger writing about a high cholesterol medication or a RA drug has value (even if paid) if they used those medications. If they are simply representing stories fed to them, I would see that differently.

    But, a good question.

  3. Michael Wong says:

    Thank you — Kimberly, George, and all others who have emailed or direct messaged me privately — for your thoughtful comments on my question that asks what are the limits of acceptability.

    For a more heated debate on the same topic (i.e. read “shouting match”), please see http://www.bnet.com/blog/drug-business/abbott-pays-bloggers-for-positive-reviews-of-its-similac-app/7496

  4. The Nerdy Nurse says:

    It really depends on how the reimbursement for the content is provided. Are they being paid for an ad on the post? Are they being paid to review the product itself? There are FTC guidelines which do regulate review bloggers. There are also ethics which one must follow. But just like is business, and yes blogging is becoming a business of sorts, the ethics of a person involved can always be questionable.
    Hopefully most blog readers don’t just believe everything they write and grown to trust the writer. If an honest writer is compensated for writing, or paid for an advertisement, I see no harm.
    The same applies with pharmaceutical companies and physicians. You can cater lunch for an office all you want, but if you are a doctor who pratices with integrity, then you practice with integrity, regardless of who is buying the sandwiches.

  5. Michael Wong says:

    @cherylholt comments — I think that paid pharma blogs are ok if it is clear that it’s a paid ad..no misrepresentation suggesting that it is an unbiased opinion

  6. Michael Wong says:

    @bluechennells8 comments – a reputable company, should not have to resort to bribery in order to find people who will willingly endorse their product.

  7. Juan says:

    I believe any information on medications disemminated on the internet must be truthful, balanced, and supported by strong, clinical data. If an agency or blogger is initiating a public discussion and is paid by a pharmaceutical company to do so, they must disclose that fact.

    • Juan Castaneda says:

      Just to clarify- I don’t think a pharmaceutical company’s use of a paid blogger is necessarily a bad thing provided the information disseminated by the blogger is truthful, balanced, and supported by clinical data. However, I believe if a blogger is being paid by a pharmaceutical company to promote a product, he should disclose the fact he’s being paid for promotion.

  8. Chris Lovell says:

    The concept of paid bloggers does leave a bad taste in the mouth but what about committed teams of activist volunteers – people who are passionate about a health related subject. Merck via an intermediary company used this strategy to get the message out about Gardisil and cervical cancer prevention. Is it ethical? Some people might object because of underlying pharma sponsorship but is it any different than say Pfizer promoting cholesterol screening because there’s a greater chance of Lipitor being used? Disclosures are OK but disease specific advocacy groups receive support from pharma companies who have drugs that treat that condition – would people advocate removal of that support just because it came from pharmaceutical companies. Personally, if pharma is willing to sponsor community driven activism to improve adherence, I have no problem with that.

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